Toomelah Movie Review

I’m late with this review. Been focusing on migrating the blog across to its own domain. The use-by date of my useful recall of movies is pretty short, and I fear the deadline may have passed with this one. So, will have to go for broad brush strokes, not detail.

That said, Toomelah is a haunting film that stays with you long after viewing, not least because of the astounding performance of its 10-year-old lead, Daniel Conners.

Daniel tells his story through the language of his eyes, facial expressions and body. As with all the characters in the movie, his spoken dialogue is spare and sparse. Kids are almost always intuitively great as actors, but this is really something else. It’s as if there is no art to this performance, nothing held back, no barrier between character and performer. This little bloke apparently knows no other way than to give himself to his role, completely and utterly. Great poignancy lies within that realisation, and in writer/director Ivan Sen’s masterful melding of real life and art.

Daniel Conners

Toomelah is a remote aboriginal community in northwest NSW that started as a misson back in the 1930s. Sen shot the movie onsite, and with the exception of actor Dean Daley-Jones his cast comprised only the people of the community. These are decisions that have paid off.

Sure, some of the performances of the minor characters are a bit rough around the edges at times, but it doesn’t much matter. Far more important is the sense of authenticity the locals and their habitat give to the piece. As a slice-of-life depiction of a part of Australia removed geographically and culturally from the greater community, the film works superbly.

And in this sense, I think it’s important. What do most of us really know about the everyday lives of people in communities such as Toomelah? We have an impression from media coverage, almost entirely negative, and dangerously (and tragically) assume that’s all there is folks. It ain’t! In enabling intimate access to this remote world of spiritual and material impoverishment, Toomelah humanises ‘the other’, filling a gap no doco can.

As with the landmark indigenous movie Samson and Delilah, the pace is slow. This is as it should be. Nothing much ‘happens’ in Toomelah. Most of the townfolk are unemployed, living in squalid conditions, getting by as best they can. There’s dope, alcohol and tobacco, lots of sitting around and not a lot of hope. A challenge to build a feature movie out of this material, you’d think, but Sen is more than up to the task, somehow managing to bring a hypnotic quality to the languidly unfolding nightmare of ennui that is the lot of the residents of Toomelah.

Daniel wags school and hangs out with a group of small-time drug dealers headed by gangster wannabe Linden (Christopher Edwards). His ambition is to be just like them, and when he’s assigned the job of drug courier, he appears to be well on his way. The loose narrative builds gradually to a low-key climax that leaves Daniel at a crossroads.

There is a chilling scene in a car parked down a dirt track in the bush, in which Daniel’s life is mapped out for him by ex-con Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones), head drug dealer in town and Linden’s rival. There are subtle undertones of personal threat to Daniel in this claustrophobic scene – the vague, sinister shapes lurking beneath the surface of the dialogue are terrifying, and registered in the child’s face in a way that is just spellbinding.

At the heart of this film’s power is Ivan Sen’s uncompromising approach to depicting Toomelah and its people authentically. There is no judgement here, no overt manipulative didactic strategy on the part of the director. There doesn’t need to be. The truth is all that is required.

Walk away from this without a moment’s thought on the plight of the remote indigenous communities of the Lucky Country and you are part of the problem.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

4 thoughts on “Toomelah Movie Review”

  1. Teaser!
    Interested to hear what you thought. I’m a Sen fan on the strength of Beneath Clouds and I found Toomelah really mesmerising. It was powerful as much for what it didn’t say as for what it did – and when the one thing was directly said, it was devastating. I’m referring to the moment when Daniel asks his grandma, “What can I do?”

  2. You’ll know from my now completed review that I’m with you on Toomelah, Karen.

    I haven’t seen Beneath Clouds, but would like to chase it up. I could well be on my way to being a Sen fan, too.


  3. Thanks Rolan for another insightful review.
    I was glad Toomelah ended on a positive note, glad Sen could see a way forward for the kids, who are mostly depicted as having life and joy yet, despite the echoing damage of the Stolen Generation.
    You are in for a treat when you find a copy of Beneath Clouds, which is a beautifully crafted film: a road movie that draws you along towards its inexorable climax, through a landscape that resonates with the dark history of invasion and massacre. I have not seen this done so well in any other film.

  4. Karen,

    That’s a good point about the movie ending on a positive note, and one I should have made in my review. There was nothing forced about it, either, which was refreshing.

    Actually, perversely perhaps, Toomelah reminds me of a truly wonderful Chinese movie I caught on video recently (thanks to my mate Matt for bringing this, and many other great Asian movies, to my attention!) – English title is Not One Less. Also focuses on life in a remote rural setting, with a cast comprising only local people, mostly kids, and moves organically to a positive ending. (NB: IMO the propagandist charges that were levelled at the film at Cannes are nonsense…and I’m no Chinaphile!).

    I was thinking while watching Toomelah that the pacing and style was far closer to Euro arthouse or the more serious Asian cinema, and indeed this is hardly surprising when you think about it. The remote indigenous communities are as exotic to mainstream Australia as any overseas culture (the lingo requiring subtitles is an obvious – albeit superficial – indicator of this), and it’s appropriate that Sen and other filmmakers working in this area should search for a different cinematic dynamic to tap into the milieu. In Toomelah and Samson and Delilah, I think they’ve found it.

    You’ve really put Beneath Clouds on my must-see map!

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